Painting the light fantastic: Photos show eerie hybrid art form

Finnish artist Janne Parviainen creates dazzling, futuristic images by painting with light. Crave's Michael Franco talks with him to get illuminated about this unique art form.

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"Something Soft," a light painting by Finnish artist Janne Parviainen Janne Parviainen

Some painters use oils. Others use pastels or charcoal. And still others use light. That's right, light.

Janne Parviainen from Helsinki, Finland, is one such artist. With experience in both photography and painting, he uses long camera exposures and a variety of lights to create images that straddle the line between both. Each one of his pieces looks like an entire sci-fi movie compressed into a single image. Or is it noir? There's a dark feel to the works despite the fact that they rely on light for their striking effects (see below).

Parviainen's work has appeared in a wide range of art blogs and magazines like National Geographic, The Guardian, and The Week. I communicated with Parviainen about his unique form of art and what it takes to create images like his. Here's what he had to say.

When did you start painting with light?
Around seven years ago. It all started by accident when I had left my camera on long exposure while walking home late at night. The streetlights had drawn beautiful light trails in the photo, which got me thinking about what could be done if I was the one making the light trails. After a few experiments you could say I was totally hooked on the art form.

What type of lights are you using in your paintings? Are they some kind of flexible tubes?
The lights I use in my paintings are actually very simple: they are different-colored children's toy LEDs that can be ordered from China for $3 for 30 pieces. For lighting the backgrounds of the photos, I have a very nice arsenal of different flashlights which I have gotten from my sponsor Olight. Ranging from 50 lumens to 4,500 lumens, I can quite easily always find the right light for the background.

From the photos you might have the impression the lights are shaped like tubes, but actually all the lines in the photos have been drawn usually with only one LED light. While the camera is on long exposure I draw the light lines and characters in the photo either by tracing my own body with light or tracing the entire room with light inch by inch.

How are they powered?
All my equipment is battery-powered so I can make my art anywhere I want. Most of the coolest locations are either in the wilderness or in abandoned buildings.

How do you get the lights you want to show up so vividly without washing out or overexposing the other elements in the frame?
The trick is to know your camera as well as you possibly can. By using the camera's aperture value you can quite nicely get the lights versus the background to work just the way you want them to. Also, because I usually work in dark conditions, I can light the background of the photo to be exactly right by using high-powered flashlights. For a photographer the camera is a bit like the guitar is for a guitarist, you've got to know it so well you can use it even in complete darkness.


How long do most paintings take?
Usually my light paintings take around 5 to 55 minutes to be done. It depends quite a lot on the ambient lighting, too. If I'm light painting outside in the summer, the exposure time can be 10 minutes max because of the bright Finnish summer nights. During wintertime it's so dark I could be light painting almost all day. Although I must say I much prefer the summer time, it is a magical feeling to be alone in a forest at night listening to the nighttime birds sing and enjoying the magnificent scents of the blooming nature.

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"The Unforgiven" Janne Parviainen

I read on your site that you don't manipulate your images after the shot is taken. Is that true? Why do you stick to this aesthetic?
I have kept it as my guideline to always use the photo without any post-processing in order to present the photos as real as possible. In my opinion it is part of the magic in light painting that you can achieve such magical-looking photos without any digital software and only by using different kind of lights while the camera is on long exposure, so it would be unnecessary to alter this otherwise documentary form of photography with things that didn't really exist when the photo was taken.

How large are your works of art?
The sizes of my photos vary from A3 size to prints the size of whole walls. I sell my work in limited editions through galleries and from my website where I can produce them to a desired size and material. Some of my work can be also purchased as posters from Web shops.

Do you consider them paintings instead of photographs? If so, why?
I think my work is in an interesting intersection of photography and painting, but I suppose they still fall more in the photography section, especially in their printed form. When looking at my work on a computer, the difference is somehow much harder to define.

About the author

Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for Crave and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.

 

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